How EU-Switzerland relations became political

GruppeOn 9 February last year, the Swiss people voted in favor of a proposal to tackle “mass-immigration” with 50.3% of the votes and a majority of the cantons. The constitutional initiative proposed by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has shed doubt on the future of the free movement of people principle and thus seriously shaken the complex relationship between the EU and Switzerland.

The Swiss government has until February 2017 to propose a law adapting the new constitutional provision. One year has already passed without much progress as the government remains strongly divided on the best way to implement possible quotas on immigration while maintaining good relations with its main economic and political partner – the EU. Switzerland hopes to renegotiate the complex agreements governing its relations with the EU in a new framework agreement. However, its leverage is small.

Cenni NajyOn 2 February Simonetta Sommaruga, President of the Swiss Confederation, came to Brussels to meet Commission President Juncker for the first time in many years, a clear signal that from now on discussions will take place at the highest political level. But, at an event of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels, Cenni Najy, Senior Policy Fellow Europe at the Swiss foreign policy Think Tank foraus, was not very optimistic about the prospects to find a good agreement. He believes it is normal the EU shows a strong stance at the beginning of the negotiations. The ball is in the Swiss court, they have to put forward a draft law and a proposal on how to renegotiate the agreements.

Gianluca GrippaCenni Najy stated that for the first time the Swiss people have voted against the agreements with the EU. Thus, a relation that until now was trouble-free is becoming growingly political. Although the Swiss government has not yet put forward draft legislation on the implementation of the cap on immigration, the EU has already clearly stated that it does not wish to renegotiate the agreements. However, as Gianluca Grippa, Head of Division Western Europe at the European External Action Service (EEAS) said “both the EU and Switzerland have a common interest in having good relations”. Nathaly BachmannNathaly Bachmann Frozza, Managing Director Strategiedialog21, agreed with Gianluca Grippa. In her view, the agreements with the EU are “essential for the Swiss economy”. As an example she informed the audience that international companies are now leaving Switzerland out of fear of the consequences of the vote. Although being proud of the direct democratic system in Switzerland, Nathaly Bachmann Frozza, admitted that it is a lot of hard work. She believes that it is urgent to create positive role models for an open society and to take the fear of the voters.

Alfred HeerAlfred Heer, National Counselor for the SVP, asked for some goodwill from the EU. In his view, the EU does not sufficiently respect the independence of Switzerland and the outcome of popular votes. He believes “Switzerland should be more confident and as an independent state should decide on how to manage immigration”. Of course Switzerland is free to decide on the way it manages immigration, however it must bear with the consequences this might have on its agreements with the EU reminded Gianluca Grippa. Switzerland cannot have one’s cake and eat it too.

Julie Cantalou